"This puzzle is made up of nothing but mysterious pieces."—Mireille
So how noir is Noir? Well, this 26-episode Japanese television series does include the themes of quixotic fate and the importance of "cool," standard for film noir. It is mostly set in France, to acknowledge the roots of the genre. However, it tends to lack the dark humor of the films of Clouzot or Melville. In fact, the entire series seems almost aggressively humorless, without making the mistake of tipping over into the grotesquely gothic.
Perhaps that is the most surprising thing about Noir. No, I take that back. The most surprising thing about Noir is how good it actually is, when there is so much that can go dreadfully wrong with a show like this.
The premise is deceptively simple. Mireille Bouquet is a professional assassin known to the underworld as Noir. Traveling with her is a teenage girl, Kirika Yumura, who has no clear memory of her past and deadly, instinctual skills. They are linked together by a cryptic conspiracy, Les Soldats, which somehow holds the key to both their identities.
There have been anime shows about the moral ambiguity of professional murder (Crying Freeman, Golgo 13) and certainly plenty of buddy-cop series—even a few with vaguely lesbian undertones. And many shows have tried to balance their episode-by-episode plots with "big conspiracy" overplots (Evangelion). Most of these have mastered inscrutability almost to an art form (try following the dialogue in Gundam Wing or Candidate for Goddess some time, in any language).
Noir manages to keep its dialogue free of pretentious poetry and metaphysical clutter, while offering enough tantalizing clues to the overall mystery to give the show a sense of direction. In between the occasional revelations, the assassination missions are kept direct and simple, with the action sequences tastefully directed.
The show also avoids taking a precious approach to its female leads, steering clear of the cheesecake (known in the anime world by the lurid name of "fan service") that a show about cute girls with guns might normally invite. Instead, Noir peppers its art direction with a few op art touches (the color schemes, especially in the opening credits, are reminiscent of Jim Steranko and other '60s and '70s graphic design) and generally keeps its pace and tone realistic. This is a show that seems more concerned with accurately depicting the guns the women carry than with showing them in their underwear.
While the show is limited by its television budget (note the frequent use of flashbacks as a means to recycle animation while establishing mood), it is stylish enough without trying to exceed its means, and the intelligent writing helps the story itself hold together over the long haul. A striking musical score by Yuki Kajiura helps too.
ADV packages the show in its usual fashion: five episodes in the first volume, four episodes in each volume thereafter. As always, ADV charges too much ($30 apiece) to lure the merely curious. The first two volumes set up the basics. The story will really kick into gear in episode 10 (starting Volume 3), with the introduction of a third female assassin who will solidify Mireille and Kirika's links to Les Soldats. Each volume includes a minimum of extras: production sketches for each episode, Japanese promos, and unretouched opening and closing credits. The English dub is fairly solid. Volume 1 even comes with a pair of red-filter "decoder" glasses to uncover clues on the packaging. It is a silly gimmick, but one which speaks volumes about the show itself. Noir takes cliché material and gives it enough of a fresh spin to be worth a look. You may not find a lot of depth here, but the show is entertaining enough to hold together for 26 episodes, which is more than you can say about many anime shows these days.
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